I think of projects and client relationships as stories. Like any good novel or film, they possess a plot-line, evolving from start to finish; and contain characters, narrative arcs, sub-plots, intrigue and, often, conflict. Designers are storytellers, so it seems natural that our process would have storytelling qualities.
Here are a couple of key moments in a project arc; they’re by no means exhaustive (feel free to add your own), but constitute pivots, arc’s or key points I look for when designing or working on programs at frog.
The singular event
Literature is littered with singular events. Whether through conflict, declarations of love or catharsis they’re unmatched in their ability to bring disparate points together or spin off subplots. In the reader or viewer they also create a sense of ownership and investment in the overall narrative.
Likewise, everyone likes to feel invested in the design process. Clients like to feel creative. Designers like to have their voices heard. And much of the getting-on-the-same-page process can be done here. If a project is considered in the way we construct a sentence, then the singular event is a punctuation mark. The kick-off and final presentation of a project are both singular events, but there can be others. At frog we create singular events during our projects through strategic use of work-sessions. Bringing clients together with project teams, working together towards a common goal, works well as a knowledge-transfer tool, but also creates a feeling of investment between client and concept. The singular event promotes alignment and buy-in, making both client and designer’s lives easier.
Collection, Immersion, Curation, Insight
Narratives are relatively complex things. They cover a lot of ground, collecting and archiving people, objects and relationships and chronicling their experiences through to a conclusion. Like a house of cards, if the suspension of disbelief isn’t maintained the whole house falls.
Designers are natural collectors and pattern-makers. Collection consists of an aggregation of any relevant data that will provide context or value to the design process. At frog that could consist of trend-scrapes, stakeholder or contextual interviews, comparative and competitive analysis, market or business audits or any number of other elements we feel will help the end result. Collecting creates familiarity, the owning of the space. It’s also our chance to ask dumb questions. The dumb question is often avoided, in fear of sounding uninformed or unprepared, but it can be very valuable in questioning assumptions. Many of the best left-field ideas we have start as dumb questions that turn out to be new and valid provocations or opportunities.
Raw data is great, but most designers would say that the design process really begins after the accumulation of data has occurred. Increasingly designers are being asked to deeply, truly understand both business and human cases, as well as the users that interact with the organization. Immersion is our chance to gain traction and knowledge, to become advocates. Adequate immersion time is a must, and totally dependent on both the assembled project team and problem we’re trying to solve. Familiarity and empathy can speed things up at the start of a project, everyone being on the same page from the very beginning.
Curation is essentially pattern-making. What is relevant, what is put aside, and how do the remaining pieces fit together? Elements are ordered and ranked, hierarchies are created and tested. Outliers are analyzed (Why don’t they fit? Are they missed opportunities?), integrated or exposed. Curation is fluid and often broken into segments using the Singular Event. The end goal is a subset of the ideas generated during the collection and immersion work, made better through aggregation and iteration.
Insights and the value of the Interstitial Moment
Even action movies need to show characters resting every once in a while. This resting time is good for the characters, but also good for the audience as it allows them time to catch up and understand the motivations of the characters and overall narrative.
Insights are the product of collection, immersion, and curation. They are the result of cumulative, deep understanding of an area and often appear when we least expect. I’ve often heard it said that design is a 24hr a day job and I agree with that. We know that many of our best ideas come at random times. I know people that keep notebooks next to their beds so they can write down the insights that appear in the middle of the night. We cite the shower as an optimal vehicle for idea generation, but obviously we can’t spend all of our time in the shower waiting for the ideas to appear.
So we need to create analogues; the project arc ideally includes time for introspection, processing and thought, non-focused time that provides a chance to breathe and wait for that insight to appear. These can be extremely frustrating times, especially when time is limited. I’ve been on projects where, for weeks at a time, nothing comes together and then in a flash everything falls into place. Experience, faith and extra-curricular activities are important; and less-senior designers require guidance and reassurance that it will all work out in the end. Incidentally, this is often the hardest time to protect when project scope risks being cut because no clear, tangible deliverable comes from it, but the interstitial moment is also the time that teams value the most.
Iterations and Reaching the End
Nobody likes a book that just seems to go on forever. But we also don’t want the story to end without full resolution.
Our ideas rarely start-out fully baked. Iteration gives us the chance to design and test, expose and shore-up weaknesses in the concepts we produce. Time for iteration is crucial and we bake it into our projects. What I find most interesting is the question of knowing when to stop. There’s always the possibility of massaging a problem for too long, constructing a world around a solution that makes perfect sense to the designer but is mystifying to everyone else. Most often, end-points come down to time and money. We work on a problem as long as we can, sometimes we have time to fully bake the core of the idea, and polish the solution to a high gloss, other times the core is mostly baked and the exterior lashed together with duct-tape and glue.
I’d love to extend this analogy, so what did I miss?
Image from It’s Nice That
By Nick de la Mare